The Rumble in the Jungle: How Muhammad Ali Shook the World

He had fought dangerous men before.  His first world title fight had been against the indomitable Sonny Liston some years earlier, and he had been the underdog then too; the rank outsider, who was thought too smooth, too pretty, too graceful – to stand a chance against the flinty, powerful Liston with his brutal, surly demeanour and fists like bricks.  But Muhammed Ali had been a decade younger then; he had danced around his opponent with the confidence of genius and the frivolity of youth, and in a single evening had launched his star into the firmament, in a blistering trail of blazing white light.

The panorama of the world had grown darker since.  The optimism of the sixties had faded into the economic malaise of the seventies; the retreat of the great civil rights movements had set the stage for decades of neoliberalism, recession and deindustrialisation.  The corrupt Nixon administration was hanging around the head of the United States like an albatross, the nation still locked in its prolonged and bloody grapple in Vietnam.  Ali himself had been drafted; but he had refused to don a uniform and go to fight in Indochina on profoundly religious and political grounds; he would not go abroad and participate in the brutalisation and murder of other oppressed peoples who had done him no harm, he argued, and then, with that provocative and iconic flourish – ‘no Vietcong ever called me nigger’.

The logic was simple and irrefutable, and yet it brought down on his head a sustained barrage of revilement from the establishment and the media who depicted him, much as one might imagine, as an enemy within, a terrorist like infiltrator who wanted to subvert the wholesome patriotic values of American imperialism and wholesale mass murder in lands faraway.  In addition, the legal apparatus of the state swung into motion, and Ali not only found himself denuded of the heavy weight title he had fought so valiantly to gain, but now the prospect of prosecution and imprisonment loomed too. And yet, despite the public pressure and the threat to his freedom Ali refused to recant or compromise.  Through what must have been a bleak and demoralizing period he spent his enforced layoff going to universities, speaking in community halls, arguing for his position and providing the anti-war movement with eloquent and considerable impetus.

It is said by many that the years which were stolen from his career in this time were the best of his life.   Ali was able to appeal against his sentence, avoid incarceration, and eventually even reclaim his boxing licence, but by this point his body was older, fuller, and less agile.  He fought against Joe Frazer in 1971, in a brutal, gruelling battle which eventually went to a points decision in Frazer’s favour.  Perhaps in one of the most appalling testaments to Ali’s grit, determination and utter physical courage – he lost another points decision to Ken Norton, a fight in which Norton caught Ali with a clean straight right in the second round, a punch which shattered his jaw.    Ali fought on in agony, desperately trying to protect a jaw – which had been broken clean through – from a barrage of blows; he survived round after round until, in the words of one of his trainers Wali Muhammad, ‘there was more and more blood…my bucket with the water and ice in it became red.’

His persecution and ostracisation outside the ring, the bombardments he endured within it; by the time of his 32nd birthday, these physical and political struggles had taken their toll.  To be sure, he was still uniquely Muhammed Ali.  He still had that that crafty, almost vulpine sense of humour that came from a warm and delightful sense of fun which was almost childlike.  If you ever see clips of Ali with children they bring an automatic smile to the face for the way he delights in teasing them, surprising them with magic tricks, sneaking up on them, doing something unexpected – and they in turn, utterly captivated, scandalized but enthralled, falling in love with the champ within moments.  Ali’s wonderful rapport with children was not just a performance for the camera; he genuinely delighted in them, and I think that is because he himself had a fundamental innocence and playfulness.  It’s true that the ‘Louisville Lip’ could trash talk an opponent, contriving mocking, sarcastic rhymes, hurting by way of his eloquence, but the overblown almost pantomime-like way in which these lines were delivered had behind it the same sense of scandal and fun which made him so beloved by children.  Despite the fact that he was perhaps the most dangerous, highly skilled, utterly relentless fighter of all time, you had the overwhelming sense that there was not an atom of genuine cruelty in Ali’s nature.

One cannot say the same about the opponent he had been scheduled to face in Zaire in 1974 – George Foreman.  That might seem odd now; most of us are familiar with Foreman in his dotage; the elderly gent, a good-natured, somewhat rambling bear of a man; he of the barbeque grill fame, who purveys that never-ending series of cooking utilities with twinkle-eyed enthusiasm.  But this was not the same man of 1974. That Foreman was a different species entirely. At 25 years of age, he stood 6.4 inches, a towering, implacable presence with high shoulders which gleamed and rolled like industrial pistons and tree trunk arms which swung like a force of nature. 37 of his forty undefeated bouts had ended with his opponents sprawled on the canvass.  Foreman was perhaps the hardest puncher in the history of the sport, he had hit Joe Frazier with a body blow which lifted him off his feet, in a contest which lasted a meagre two rounds, and saw the man who had defeated Muhammed Ali flawed by the young challenger six times before the referee mercifully brought the mauling to a close.

In his demeanour, Foreman was the polar opposite of Ali.  Whereas Ali was a past-master of braggadocio, delivering performance after performance of boast and bombast in the manner of a pantomime villain determined to coax involuntary smiles from an incredulous audience – Foreman was a laconic, brooding presence who had to be pressed in order to extract a few words, but when those words did arrive, they came in a steely soft voice which wasn’t far from a whisper, but which held a shivering, ominous promise of danger and destruction.  ‘My opponents don’t worry about losing’, Foreman assured journalists quietly, ‘they worry about getting hurt.’  For all of this, as Ali entertained the crowds, as he put on performances in the gyms, and as he heckled his gargantuan opponent, the grins on the faces of his training team had assumed a noticeable tautness.  For they were not simply worried about their fighter’s record now.  They were worried about his life.

The combatants were demarked in other ways too.  Foreman, from the outset, seemed perturbed by his surroundings, by the extreme heat and the even more extreme poverty.  In a particularly guarded gesture, he brought with him two German Shepherd dogs for protection, an act which failed to ingratiate him with the local Zairians for such dogs evoked memories of the security forces of their former colonial masters when the country had been subject to Belgium during the best part of a century.   Foreman preferred to live in seclusion, was little seen. His distance was interpreted as disdain by many in the local population.  Guy Lioki, a Zairean (Congolese) and a boxing referee, remembers how ‘Foreman was too moody, even if he was black like us. He stayed with the important people and was really interested in the women’.

Ali, on the other hand, was anything but aloof.  In his training sessions he would exhibit his natural gregariousness, play fighting with delighted local children, slapping out rhythms on traditional African drums, before pattering out his zipping, lightning fast punch combinations against a rapidly reverberating punching bag.  His gestures, his speech – ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, the hand can’t hit what the eye can’t see’ – seemed to attain a litheness, a rhythm, a musicality – which harmonised with the raffish, colourful surroundings.  Whereas Foreman seemed remote, a looming shadow on the edge of one’s vision, Ali was everywhere centre stage: he jogged in the poorest neighbourhoods flanked by crowds of children in tattered clothes, he drove in open topped cars to some of the country’s most sacred and historical monuments while crowds thronged beneath big blue open skies to watch him pass.  In the words of his ringside doctor, Ferdie Pacheco: ‘Watching Ali in Zaire was wonderful…He’d go on walks into areas where I don’t think they had electricity, let alone television sets, and everyone knew him. To see the looks on people’s faces when they saw him, the love, the power he had over them; it was spine-tingling.’

In this way, the conflict between Ali and Foreman inevitably took on a political hue.   Partly this was because Ali had already made a name for himself as a radical, an anti-war protestor, a committed Muslim, and a principled civil rights activist.   He had weathered the blows of titans of the ring like Joe Frasier, but he had also stood resilient against the menace of an even mightier adversary – the US government.   The surly, standoffish Foreman, on the other hand, seemed an almost tailor made symbol of the status quo: someone who disdained the ordinary people, and seemed keen to deliver a beating, pick up his purse, and then high tail it out of Zaire as quick as possible.

The parallels with imperialism were not lost on the people of a country who had endured almost a century of it, and Ali – rather shrewdly if not a little cynically – quickly picked up on this, lambasting Foreman as a ‘Belgian.’  The promotion of the fight was increasingly conducted along the same lines: a huge poster of Mobuto was unveiled in the stadium. The president of the country and the patron of the fight was quick to paint himself in the colours of black nationalism and anti-colonialism – a bit rich given the fact that he was a despot who had brutalised his own people and who, along with a sullied human rights record, had received financial patronage from several US presidents who considered him a useful bulwark against Soviet inspired ‘communism’.

But this is to miss the point.  The Rumble in the Jungle was never about Mobuto, any more than it was about that cackling, money grabbing crank Don King who made his noxious name by promoting the fight.   It was about the people whose lives had been exhausted by colonialism, and what pertained in its aftermath.  The impoverished masses who had fought for a new world, who had extricated themselves from the genocidal grip of Belgian imperialism, only to find themselves compressed under the pressure of the US empire as it prosecuted its struggle for hegemony against the Russians, and used its proxies like the IMF to relieve ‘developing’ African nations of their political autonomy in a never ending grab for labour and resources.    For many people, the Ali-Foreman fight took on an almost mythical resonance, because in Foreman one could sense something of the brutal juggernaut of empire rolling its way interminably over all opposition, while in Ali one felt the spirit of the oppressed; ironical, crafty, resilient and courageous.

Above everything else, as Ali played and danced and hummed with the life of the people he encountered, and as they poured their hopes into their hero – there was a real feeling of what Antonio Gramsci might have termed pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.  You wanted Ali to win more than anything, you had the palpable sense that his triumph in Africa would mean something more than just a boxing victory, that the contest was already freighted with a series of more profound social meanings.    Many yearned for an Ali victory but theirs were lives which had often harvested bitter fruit, that knew something both about the nebulous promise of freedom and the oppression which could so mercilessly evaporate it – so while there was the desperate, giddy hope that Ali might win, there was also the unspoken, subdued realisation that such a victory was near impossible, for real life rarely finishes with a fairy tale flourish.

The build up to the event had been characterised by an explosion of music and celebration – a three day festival had been held which celebrated the solidarity between Africans and African Americans, and had featured artists like B.B King, Celia Cruz and concluded with a heady performance by James Brown singing ‘Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud’ into the balmy Kinshasa night.   But as the time of the fight got closer, the tropical rhythms began to fade and that chill of seriousness increasingly worked its way into an atmosphere of jubilation.  Foreman had not just defeated Joe Frasier and Ken Norton – the two who had recently beaten Ali – Foreman had annihilated them.  Ali may have been the people’s champion, but he seemed to be fallible in a way Foreman wasn’t; he was older, he was past his prime, and there lurked the distinct possibility that Ali’s bravado, his defiance and his playfulness, would be curtailed in the most brutal of ways.

And then they were stood face to face in the ring.  To a packed stadium of 60 000.  Images being relayed around the world.  Foreman looming, implacable at the centre of the ring, Ali looking up at him, his mouth motoring at a mile a minute, still defiant, even though nobody in the industry at this point favoured him with any kind of chance.  Even Ali’s own team were living on a wing and a prayer.  Their best hope for their fighter was that Ali could weave and dance, remaining just out of reach of the deadly clubbing arms of his monster opponent, but as Dave Anderson, writing for the New York Times on the eve of the fight, opined – ‘George Foreman might be the heaviest puncher in the history of the heavyweight division.  For a few rounds, Ali might be able to escape Foreman’s sledge hammer strength, but not for fifteen rounds.  Sooner or later the champion will land one of his sledgehammer punches, and for the first time in his career Ali will be counted out.’

This was the conventional wisdom, and when the fight began, Ali did indeed begin to bob and weave, landing a few telling blows on his opponent, while remaining just of out of reach, and each time Ali was able to connect the crowd roared so loudly that the whole stadium shook, only Foreman just shook off the blows, like a buffalo shaking off flies, and kept on coming.  By the time of the second round, Ali was still landing, quick waspish blows to the other man’s head. But by now Foreman had him increasingly backed up, the snap in his step was diminishing, and he was more and more pressed against the ropes as Foreman’s punches arrived to his body like artillery pummelling trenches.

Increasingly stationary, lying back against the ropes, Ali would cover up as best he could, round after round, as Foreman unleashed blow after blow to his abdomen.  Now the crowd were on their feet, exhilaration mingling with terror, for it seemed as though at any point, one of those clubbing looping punches might break one of Ali’s arms, or worse, connect cleanly with his head.  If the tension in the crowd was taut, the apprehension in Ali’s corner was excruciating, verging on the feverish.  As Ali’s dietician Lana Shabazz would recall years later, ‘I wasn’t worried during that fight.  I just died three or four times. Oh, my goodness; I just flat out died.  I couldn’t look.  I just covered my face with my hands, and every now and then I’d ask, “Is he still alive?”’.   By this point the others in the Ali camp were screaming at their fighter: ‘We were hollering’, Wali Muhammad recalls, ‘Get off the ropes! Dance, champ; dance…I thought George would break him in two.’   ‘Move, for Christ’s sake move’, screeched Angelo Dundee.

By round six, however, something had started to change.  For the first time Foreman appeared noticeably more sluggish.  And those swooping, long blows to Ali’s midriff, seemed to have lost some of their charge.  They were no longer detonating with the same explosive power.  Still Foreman was bearing down on his mark, but in the closing seconds of the round, Ali’s gloves flashed out with his lightening like speed, and Foreman was momentarily stopped in his tracks; blinking out, dazzled, unable to keep pressing in.   As the bell rang, Foreman walked across the ring, his breathing heavy now, those high muscular shoulders heaving.  Ali, on the other hand, stayed standing; he began to motion at the crowd, shaking his fist in the air, and from the anonymous thousands in the shadows of the stalls came a single roaring voice – ‘ALI….ALI!’     Now the crowd were whipped up into a frenzy, and as they gained in energy it was as though Foreman lost his; still he had Ali against the ropes, still he was throwing those blows to the body, but the big man was exhausted and lacklustre having almost punched himself out.

Going into the eighth round, Foreman was moving forward, Ali moving back, but flashing that lightening jab, and with every connection an instantaneous roar from the audience who were on the point of delirium, sensing in the fibre of their being the impossible was about to transpire.   And now Foreman had Ali up against the ropes on the right side of the ring, swinging desperately, his vast head sagging, when all at once Ali sneaked a right hand over the top, and then another, swinging Forman back round onto the ropes.  From those ropes, the large bull of a champion made one last desperate charge toward his elusive quarry, following Ali into the middle of the ring, but as he came forward, Ali peppered him with blows, a series of hooking combinations, when the impossible happened: that huge tree of a man under the force of the flurry staggers momentarily, before his momentum overwhelms him and he goes crashing to the ground.

This is a moment, suspended in time.  Foreman falling to the ground, Ali standing over him, his right hand curling primed to deliver another blow; in that moment the cameras flash, consigning to eternity this single image of a heroic David flooring a once invulnerable Goliath.  In the same moment the crowd let out the most ear splitting, earthshattering roar, for it is not just Ali’s victory, it is theirs too; they have suffered with their champion, they have willed his fortune and fortitude, and as Foreman is counted out, they are joyous for this is more than the victory of one boxer over another – it is a triumph of the human spirit in the most perilous of circumstances and a balm to oppressed peoples across the world. As the professional commentators at ringside chatter like excited monkeys, relaying the news of this momentous event in a dozen languages to countries across the globe, the crowd of people in the stands swells in its jubilation and all at once begins to spill into the ring.   For a moment Ali is lost as he is surrounded by security and police and ecstatic corner men, only then he hooves into view once more, raising his arms from the vortex of swirling people, and the noise and the pandemonium is overwhelming now.  Across the world millions of people are on their feet before TV sets and radios, in homes and bars and cafes and restaurants.   And as the dancing and celebrations kick into full swing in Zaire’s capital, all the pent up heat and tension of the days before is so suddenly evaporated as from the night’s sky above black clouds fissure and a mighty storm breaks, heralding the coming of a new day.

Tony McKenna’s journalism has been featured by Al Jazeera, Salon, The Huffington Post, ABC Australia, New Internationalist, The Progressive, New Statesman and New Humanist. His books include Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective (Macmillan), The Dictator, the Revolution, the Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin (Sussex Academic Press), Toward Forever: Radical Reflections on History and Art  (Zero Books), The War Against Marxism: Reification and Revolution (Bloomsbury) and The Face of the Waters (Vulpine). He can be reached on twitter at @MckennaTony